I have recently had to fire a couple of people. I hate firing people. It is always stressful to me not only because it means placing an ad, interviewing, hiring and training someone else to replace them, but also depriving someone of their livelihood these days is not something I relish even if it is necessary. I was discussing one of my current personnel situations with my 13 year old daughter and she thought that it would be really cool to have a job where you got to fire people; and that she’d be really good at it. Personally, I hope I never get to the point where it doesn’t bother me on some basic level. I would feel I had lost a chunk of my humanity were that the case. An old boss of mine used to call it “La Pluma Roja” because he would take a red Sharpie and put a big, fat, red line through the person’s schedule when he fired someone. The need for such public displays is not something I have ever had. It’s embarrassing enough for someone to lose their job, but to prime the gossip pump by putting it on a billboard for all to see is probably not the best management decision ever made. I mean, why not just put his head on a post at the city gate.
One of the guys that got the heave-ho was a “project” that failed. I have always espoused the theory that you can teach anyone to do any job. The only thing you can’t teach them is how to be a nice person. It’s much easier to teach a busboy to be a great waiter than it is to teach a grumpy waiter with lots of experience how to get along. This guy proved to be the exception to the rule. He was certainly a nice enough guy, had a decent sense of hospitality, showed up on time, and kept his uniform clean and pressed. But, he was what we in the business call a “one-spooner”; the kind of guy that will serve a bowl of soup or a dessert, to one person at a table of four and, when someone else at the table asks for a spoon because they obviously want to try it too, will bring only one spoon for the one person who asked for it. If you can’t understand or anticipate that most likely some other person at that same table might want to try it too and bring them all spoons, you have issues. Even if you don’t do it out of a sense of anticipating your guests’ needs, bring them all spoons anyway so if someone else at the table DOES ask for one, you won’t have to drop what you are doing to go, yet again, back to the waiter station to get ANOTHER spoon. A simple concept, one would think. Not for my man. Even after explaining this principle (and many others like it) to him several times each I had to give him the boot.
The fact that I seem to have a conscience about stuff like this is probably why I would never make a good restaurant owner. As an owner, you have to be ready and willing to fire everyone at some point. Everyone is expendable. Any decision a business owner makes should be made for one and only one reason: to increase the bottom line. If you make friends with the staff or become too attached, your ability to make those decisions is impaired. Don’t name the lambs, it just makes it harder to eat the lamb chops. This may sound cut-throat, but it is a basic reality in business.
In my hot-headed youth as a line cook or sous chef, I used to have such an ego that I thought that any place would go down in flames if I walked out. And I did walk out on a couple of places. No notice, no big “Fuck you, I quit” scenes. Just packed up my knives and left. Wasn’t I surprised when I drove by a couple of weeks later and they were still open?!
The truth, I was slow to realize, was that no one is so important that they could close the place. Once, when I was a fledgling line cook at a local place that was just a half step above Denny’s (they had a bar with some busty cocktail waitresses, woo-hoo!) a group of us cooks thought we were just all-that-and a-bag-of-Fritos. One of the cooks, a guy we all despised, got a raise. We thought that was blatantly unfair, even though this guy worked graveyard every night and had to deal with the Bar Rush at 2:30am (or Animal Hour as it was known). We were all a bunch of party hearty dudes (a couple of biker types, a couple ex-cons and skinny, 18 year-old-pimple-faced me) and were discussing the topic at a party after ingesting some excellent purple microdot. It was the 70’s after all. We decided it would be a good idea to go down to the shop and set the manager straight. We got the assistant manager cornered in a back dry storage room and laid out our demands. I can still remember him talking and moving his hands and me thinking “Oh, wow” looking at the rainbow tracers flowing behind them. We demanded raises equal to what Graveyard Boy was making or we were going to quit. He said he would meet with the GM and the Executive Chef first thing tomorrow. The poor guy must have been terrified. The $12,500 a year he was making was surely not enough to put up with this shit.
Well, of course the Executive Chef said go to hell and we all quit. A couple of days later we all thought it would be a hoot to drop in and see the place crumble into dust before our eyes. We were pretty shocked to see three District Managers from the company on the hot line with their ties still on, sleeves rolled up, cooking the Sunday morning breakfast rush, and keeping up with the pace quite well. Uh-oh. Looks like we might not get that desperate “Please come back, we’ll pay you anything you want” phone call after all. The two ex-cons were on parole, and quitting a job without notifying the parole board was a violation. Buh-bye. Me, I went on to another job. It took me a couple more ego-trip walk-outs to learn my lesson, but it finally sunk in. In the restaurant universe I was maybe the equal of a small comet blazing through the solar system, but I was definitely not the Sun. And acid at work was not a good idea…